What is a charge?
An offensive foul that occurs when a player makes significant contact with a defender that has established position.
A defensive foul that occurs when the offensive player makes significant contact with a defender who is not stationary, fails to give proper space and/or is in the restricted area. This is how Joey Crawford calls it.
What is the official rule for a charge?
The NBA rulebook states that "if an offensive player causes contact with a defensive player who has established a legal position, an offensive foul shall be called and no points may be scored. A defensive player may turn slightly to protect himself, but is never allowed to bend over and submarine an opponent."
In other words, a defender needs to be in a certain position before contact in order to draw a charge.
Against a dribbler in the open court, the defender simply needs to be in front of him and provide enough distance for that player to reasonably stop or change direction. On a drive near the basket, the defender must be in position before the dribbler begins his upward shooting motion.
A charge is also called if "the player initiates contact in a non-basketball manner" such as leading with his foot.
A blocking foul occurs when a defender attempts to draw a charge, but fails to get into proper position based on the above criteria.
How has the rule changed?
There have been several changes made over the past couple decades, none more important than the expansion of the restricted area in 1997. That decision was designed to limit the practice of players standing directly underneath the basket in order to draw charges. The league also clarified its blocking rules in 2004, and in 2007 changed the rules for when two referees disagree on a block/charge call. The implementation of different rules against flopping has also changed how blocks and charges are called.
What is the restricted area?
A four-foot arc underneath the basket under which players cannot draw charges. The rule is designed to prevent players from hanging below the rim while offensive players drive to the basket. A defender must establish his position outside of the area in order to draw a charge. The exception: if the dribbler began his drive inside the lower defensive box, which is known as "the area from the bottom tip of the free throw circle to the endline between the two 3’ posted-up marks."
People always say you "need to be set" to draw a charge. Is that true?
To some degree, yes. The rulebook states that a defender needs to "get his torso directly in the path and beat him to the spot."
However, the notion that a player's feet must be entirely stationary in order to draw a charge call isn't really correct. Unlike most fans at home, referees don't look at a defender's feet and whether they're shuffling at the moment of impact. Instead, it's about whether the defender's torso is set in position.
So, players do need to get "set," but the common definition could use some tweaking.
Can a block/charge be reviewed?
As of right now, referees can only review whether a player's feet are in the restricted area, and only in the final two minutes. However, the league's Competition Committee recommended expanding review situations on block/charge calls last year, so this could change. The NBA has never allowed for reviewing judgement calls before, but it seems intent on addressing block/charge reviews in some way.
Who is good at taking charges?
DeMarcus Cousins may not be considered a premier defender in the NBA, but the Kings big man led the league last season with 36 charges taken, putting him five ahead of Raptors guard Kyle Lowry. Cousins has led the league in charges drawn in two of the past three years. Monta Ellis, Ricky Rubio, Nick Collison, Blake Griffin and Mike Dunleavy have also been among the league leaders the past couple seasons.
Are charges good for the game?
The charging and blocking rules have been around so long that it's hard to envision an NBA without them, but they're not without opponents. Back in March, Bob Ryan wrote a piece arguing for the end of charging fouls. "It baffles me how this was ever incorporated into the game of basketball in the first place," he wrote.
There are many who share Ryan's sentiments and feel that the game would be better served by more fluidity, fewer whistles and less guffawing over who got to Location X first. From a pure entertainment aspect -- and the NBA is ultimately an entertainment business -- one could argue that these rules undermine some of the game's pacing and encourage strategies that aren't especially fun to watch.
Is this play a charge?
This was a controversial call from the 2011 Finals, but the referees actually got it right. While Tyson Chandler had his right foot just inside the restricted area, it's not a blocking foul because LeBron began his drive inside the lower defensive box. Chandler still got into position with his torso facing James, so that's a charge on the Heat forward.
Is this play a charge?
Fast forward to this 2012 regular season game between Washington and Portland. Jordan Crawford starts a drive to the rim from near the three-point line and lowers his shoulder to initiate contact before raising up to take the shot. The defender, Wesley Matthews, gets most of his body in front of Crawford, but notice the angle of his torso as contact is made. He's clearly on an angle and trying to turn when Crawford hits him.
That's a blocking foul, and a smart play by Crawford.
Why do referees get this wrong so much?
Basketball is a frenetic, complicated series of moving parts in a condensed area, and the rulebook demands incredible precision in making these calls. Referees are tasked with making these judgments in real-time and it's important to remember how much they must track in a split second. Where did the drive start? Is the defender's torso in position? Were his feet outside the restricted area? Is there even enough contact to blow the whistle in the first place?
When you consider that referees are also often looking for things beyond block/charge calls, too, it's not surprising that they occasionally miss the details with these bang-bang plays.